Our research at CoSteer suggests that ‘…when observing the relationship between governance and culture, we see empathic leadership emerging as a dominant influencer – it’s a powerful key.’
But what is empathic leadership, and should we actually be talking about compassion?
Empathy is feeling with another – we identify personally with the way someone else is feeling. Empathy is hugely powerful, and we know from brain imaging that when you’re feeling empathy for someone who is suffering, the parts of your brain that show activity are those active when you have suffered yourself.
In order for us to move beyond empathy, into compassion, we have to move towards the other person. Compassion is not a feeling, compassion is action, it’s a movement towards.
Compassionate leadership is highly correlated with trust
So, why would we want to be compassionate instead of empathic? Evidence from different areas of psychological study demonstrate that empathy requires a huge amount of energy and emotion – it’s draining. This is important for leaders, because if empathy is exhausting – it can lead to burnout.
In contrast, when we are compassionate, according to Ellen Agler, “… you learn to be present for, and hold with spaciousness, the pain and suffering of others, without fully absorbing it as your own – responding and serving, whilst supporting yourself with self-compassion.”
Compassionate leadership is highly correlated with trust and organisations that develop high-trust environments have more empathy for their work colleagues and do not depersonalise them – their organisations were more human.
According to West, 2021, “… there is clear evidence that compassionate leadership results in more engaged and motivated staff with high levels of wellbeing, which in turn results in high-quality performance.”
Our own research supports this notion, and we see “… some of the strongest relationships are between empathic leadership, living values and interestingly the quality of information available for decision-making”. This makes sense from both a psychological wellbeing and governance perspective.
When leadership is open and transparent with its information and communication, and where values are lived through behaviours, organisations are seen to be governed well.
Interestingly, by being open and living values this also develops psychological safety and trust.
According to West, 2021, “… for leadership to be compassionate, it must also be inclusive. Compassion blurs the boundaries between self and other, promoting belonging, trust, understanding, mutual support and, by definition, inclusion.” This affirms the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion when looking at leadership, decision-making and culture.
There are clear drivers for businesses too …”Compassionate leadership increases staff engagement and satisfaction, resulting in better outcomes for organisations including improved financial performance.” – Dawson and West 2018.
So, what does compassionate leadership look like?
Good leadership is a skill, but it often stems from determining clear direction when we understand our ‘WHY’. We have all encountered different types of leaders: authoritative, dominant and autocratic. But perhaps a true leader is one who has the strength to take responsibility and accept accountability as well as the courage to embrace vulnerability – the vulnerability of themselves and the vulnerability of others.
If we look at the murmuration of starlings, the spectacle that sees thousands of birds flock within a cohesive mass, but with almost unbelievable agility – this is leadership.
Each bird leads, and each bird looks to those around it and follows, not with blind trust, but with the security of knowing that by being together they have a better chance of survival. There is no competition, only collaboration.
A true leader delegates, supports, coaches and directs others through values, behaviours and compassion.
In a survey recently conducted of 3,000 workers in the UK, they found that only 25% have full trust in their company leadership. On the other side, almost 1 in 5 employees are saying that they do not trust their leadership. With the emerging crises for leaders, such as engagement, retention and the economic situation, human leadership has probably never been so important.
So, if we want to support our people, enhance their wellbeing, and create organisations that perform well in the long-term, we need to develop trust and an environment with high levels of psychological safety.
Our growing body of evidence at CoSteer is supported by others, and we would suggest that to develop trust, leadership should be focusing on three aspects:
- Leading with compassion
- Being open and honest
- Living your organisation’s values
These are not easy, but our evidence and data are increasingly clear that these skills will support and develop trust and psychological safety within an organisation and that they are vital for leadership, right now.